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Smoke cooled air and helped slow weekend wildfire spread in Alberta, officials say

Blairmore area danger wildfire warning signage is shown in this handout image provided by Alberta's fire service. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Government of Alberta Fire Service **MANDATORY CREDIT **

EDMONTON — Wildfire activity in Alberta wasn't as bad over the holiday weekend as officials had feared when they saw the initial hot and dry weather forecasts because of smoke cover and limited rain in some areas.

But it's not all good news because while smoke cools the air, it limits the ability to fly firefighting aircraft and it harms the health of everyone having to breathe it.

"It's a mixed bag, certainly, with smoke," Christie Tucker of Alberta Wildfire said during a news conference Sunday.

"I couldn't say one outweighs the other. We will take advantage of any opportunity we have, and if it's providing an opportunity for more on-the-ground firefighting, then that's what we're able to do."

Officials reported Sunday that a wildfire that's a part of the Eagle Lake complex of fires near Fox Creek, Alta., saw some precipitation overnight Saturday, allowing firefighters on the ground and heavy equipment operators the chance to continue containing the fire.

Meteorologists with Alberta Wildfire have also indicated precipitation and cooler temperatures are in the forecast for the region early this week.

Tucker said only five new wildfires started between Friday morning and Sunday morning, part of which could be attributed to Albertans respecting restrictions on fires and ATV use.

Overall Sunday, there were 84 fires burning in the province, 23 of which were out of control. More than 10,000 people were evacuated.

"While we are optimistic that the forecast rain will be enough to make a difference to some wildfires in the province, we are not out of the woods yet," Tucker said.

Edmonton remained hazy and smoke-smelling on Sunday, posing health concerns for event organizers, health officials and people with respiratory issues.

A spokeswoman for Alberta Health Services said that, while she wasn't able to provide numbers on emergency department visits or health hotline calls since smoke arrived in many areas last week, there are signs the pollution is an issue.

"While AHS does not track calls to 811 specifically around smoke, anecdotally, call centre staff have reported a significant increase in calls over the last 24 hours from zones that are experiencing air quality issues due to smoke in the area," Jennifer Green said in an email.

RCMP in Fox Creek said the driver of a large truck experienced a close call Saturday after he took a gravel road to avoid a checkpoint and got stuck in mud.

Fire surrounded him, police said, and it was too dangerous for first responders to get to him. Fortunately, a forestry helicopter flew him to safety.

"Incidents like these only put unnecessary strain on all first responders while threatening the safety of our communities.” said Staff Sgt. Neal Fraser in a news release.

Police said the man may face charges.

Provincial wildfire officials said they were grateful to the landowners who assisted crews who were building a dozer line to slow the spread of a fire near Shining Bank, Alta., that's part of the Deep Creek wildfire complex.

But they noted in a wildfire update for the region on Sunday it was "a special situation where the landowners are able to work closely with industry in ensuring the safety of the pipelines and the operators."

They also warned people not to walk into burned areas.

"There are unseen hazards, like deep burning ash pits, falling trees because their roots have been burnt away and aren't stable as well as other unknown dangers," Sunday's update for the Edson Forest Area stated.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2023.

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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